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From Abdul Abdullah to Vincent Namatjira: 10 artists forging a new political future | Art and design


A sense of urgency is pervading Australian art. Artists are seeking more than ever to spark cultural change. For some, this involves moving away from traditional art-making approaches. Others continue to mine the archives or the natural world for materials that inspire, shock, or lend themselves to 21st century recalibration.

Collaborations are becoming more common across disciplines, between artists and scientists, activists, healthcare workers, educators. Audiences and art institutions are being asked to play new roles in their relationship with art.

Works “about identity” are no longer seen as solely the domain of artists belonging to minority groups. Many artists and audiences now expect art institutions to acknowledge the political tensions in which their work is exhibited and experienced. Colonial artistic assumptions are being questioned and in some cases directly countered by institutions, while climate catastrophe is a topic from which no one is spared. The question of how to recalibrate human relationships with nature is a point of focus for many artists working in Australia today.

In an increasingly destabilised world, barriers are being broken down and audiences are becoming more comfortable with experiencing new approaches to art. Here is a subjective, non-definitive snapshot of Australian artists – some well-known, others just beginning to make their mark – who investigate personal, local and global political themes, and open up possibilities for the future.

Abdul Abdullah





For we are young and free Manual embroidery 2017 by Abdul Abdullah



For We Are Young and Free (2017) by Abdul Abdullah. Photograph: Courtesy the artist

John Olsen once said his status as Australia’s “greatest living artist” was “a terrible burden”. Abdul Abdullah emblazoned the phrase across a painting of an Australian landscape for his work A Terrible Burden, shortlisted for this year’s Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), highlighting the way ownership has been inscribed on Australia cartographically and aesthetically, since invasion.

Hailing from Perth and now living in Sydney, Abdullah’s works in a variety of media focus on the experience of marginalised community groups, reflecting his coming of age in the post-September 11 era as a Muslim Australian. Recently, comments by federal MP George Christensen and a Mackay local councillor led to the temporary removal of Abdullah’s work For We Are Young and Free, which depicts members of the armed services, from the touring exhibition Violent Salt.

Where to find his work: Abdullah’s work will be included in the forthcoming Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art (29 February – 8 June). He is represented by Yavuz Gallery, and will present a solo exhibition with Yavuz at The Armory Show in New York (5 – 8 March).

Alana Hunt





An image from Cups of nun chai, participatory memorial and media intervention, 2010-ongoing.



An image from Cups of Nun Chai, Alana Hunt’s participatory memorial and media intervention, 2010-ongoing. Photograph: Alana Hunt

An artist and writer based in Kununurra in the far north-west of Australia, Alana Hunt makes works that consider the subtle and overt violence arising from contested territories. Hunt’s participatory memorial to Kashmiri civilians, Cups of Nun Chai (2010–ongoing), originally appeared as a newspaper serial and in 2020 will be published as a book by Yaarbal Books (New Delhi-based publishers founded by documentary filmmaker and writer Sanjay Kak).

Hunt’s latest project, The Border Line, takes as its starting point her home in Miriwoong country on the border of Western Australia and the Northern Territory. While the cultures of this region have been exported successfully to the world, The Border Line sparks creative conversations within the region through events including film screenings, discussions and residencies.

Where to find her work: Hunt’s feature essay Violent Dreams of Development: A food bowl in the north‑west of Australia? appears in the current issue of Artlink. Her work is included in Spaced 04: Rural Utopias, organised by International Art Space. In February, Hunt will travel to the Dhaka Art Summit as part of the Australia Council’s International Development program, and will also undertake a residency at Fremantle Art Centre.

Ian Milliss

While a teenager in the 1960s, Ian Milliss was creating necessarily modular paintings in his small bedroom in the Sydney suburb of Matraville and exhibiting them at the renowned Central Street Gallery. By the 1970s, Milliss had abandoned the conventional art world in favour of other forms of cultural disruption, particularly participating as an activist in the Green Ban and trade union movements and contributing to the production of their respective journals, The City Squatter (1974) and Trade Union Publication (1979-80).

Elements of the art world eventually came to embrace Milliss’s alternative approach to changing and building culture, and in 2013 the AGNSW mounted an exhibition he co-curated with Lucas Ihlein celebrating the innovative farming methods of PA Yeomans, while Artspace presented a survey of his work that same year. Milliss’s practice challenges the role of art institutions as hubs for entertainment and easily tradeable objects, believing they could return to their role as “cultural seed banks”. He is a founding member of the Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation.

Where to find his work: At the AGNSW as part of Making Art Public: 50 years of Kaldor Public Art Projects (KPAP), a reprisal of a work Milliss made in response to working on the installation of Christo and Jean-Claude’s Wrapped Coast (1969) is currently on show, and he is also editor-at-large of the project Extra! Extra! Hold the Press, investigating ideas inspired by 50 years of KPAP to develop a weekly newspaper (12 November – 10 December).

Vincent Namatjira





Vincent and Donald (Happy Birthday) (2018) by Vincent Namatjira.



Vincent and Donald (Happy Birthday) (2018) by Vincent Namatjira. Photograph: Courtesy the artist and This Is No Fantasy

In the recent Asia-Pacific Triennial at Brisbane’s QAGOMA, Vincent Namatjira presented three groups of seven portraits: recent prime ministers, the wealthiest Australians, and leaders of the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) communities where the artist lives. The powerful visual statement of the disconnect between Australia’s rich and powerful non-Indigenous leaders and the tjilpi (senior artists and law-men) continues to resonate as the inadequate response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart sputters along.

This duality could also be seen in Namatjira’s work Close Contact, which won the 2019 Ramsay Art Prize in Adelaide. A freestanding double-sided painting featuring a self-portrait of the artist on one side and Captain Cook on the other, the work was an evolution of form for this painter whose portraits of international political leaders disarm with their humour while hitting home over issues of colonialism and geopolitics.

Where to find his work: Namatjira is represented by This Is No Fantasy, Melbourne.

Janet Laurence





Detail of Janet Laurence’s Deep Breathing: Resuscitation for the Reef (2015–16/2019)



Detail of Janet Laurence’s Deep Breathing: Resuscitation for the Reef (2015–16/2019). Photograph: Jacquie Manning

Bushfires rage all around us, yet we are told natural disasters are not the time to discuss climate change. For Janet Laurence, the environment became explicitly political in her practice in the late 1990s, when she witnessed the impact of land clearing during a residency. Now, Laurence’s poignantly beautiful works, ranging from print and photo-media to sculpture and installation, unapologetically focus on the devastating impact of climate change.

In her recent survey exhibition, After Nature, at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, one of the major installation pieces, Deep Breathing: Resuscitation for the Reef (2015–16/2019), included footage of coral and marine life filmed during a residency at Lizard Island, a site where the reef is monitored for coral bleaching.

Where to find her work: In 2020 Laurence will present a solo exhibition in the Yu-Hsui Museum of Art in Taiwan, titled The Entangled Garden of Plant Memory. She will also participate in the group show Courants Verts in Paris curated by Paul Ardenne in L’espace Fondation EDF in March 2020, and in the National Gallery of Australia exhibition titled Know My Name in May 2020. Laurence is represented by Dominik Mersch Gallery, Sydney.

Sam Petersen





Two jars of blue liquid



Sam Petersen’s show, My Pee Is Political, is showing at Darren Knight Gallery in February 2020. Photograph: Sam Petersen

The personal is political, and for Melbourne-based artist Sam Petersen, this notion is central to her practice. Petersen’s sexuality and disability inform her work which focuses on access – physical, professional, social. Petersen has described plasticine as a “great subverter of space, and therefore potentially of people’s minds”, and uses it in installation works, exploring its malleable and opaque properties.

The spoken and written word are a major part of Petersen’s work. In the performance I’m Not a Good Girl, held in 2018 at Westspace, Melbourne, Petersen said: “I have hardly felt discriminated against as a woman, for my disability has always overshadowed it. This is annoying as I feel like a good angry feminist, but never get the chance. Instead I have grown up in this world where few people know how to be with me. And I have come to see that is feminism but hardly anyone knows about it.”

Where to find her work: In February, Petersen will travel to Sydney to present her first commercial gallery exhibition, My Pee Is Political, at Darren Knight Gallery (1 February – 29 February), having received an Australia Council grant to make the trip with curator Madé Spencer-Castle and the two support workers she requires for independent travel. The title of the exhibition refers to how the function of wee relates to Petersen’s disability.

Brook Andrew





Brook Andrew - Into the Fire, 2019



Into the Fire by Brook Andrew (2019). Photograph: courtesy the artist and Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne

Next year’s 22nd Biennale of Sydney will be the first curated by an artist. Brook Andrew’s project, Nirin, is a First Nations-led Biennale that will give voice to First Nations artists from around the world and challenge the dominant narratives of colonialism. Alongside more traditional Biennale offerings, Andrew has invited creative practitioners from other fields such as chef Kylie Kwong and cartoonist First Dog on the Moon to contribute.

Ninin is a word meaning “edge” from Andrew’s mother’s language group, the Wiradjuri people of central western NSW. Andrew’s own practice is rooted in research modes across traditional and new media and draws on the artist’s extensive archival collection of photographs and other documents.

Where to find his work: The 22nd Biennale of Sydney (2020): Nirin, curated by Brook Andrew, will be open from 14 March – 8 June 2020. Andrew is represented by Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, and Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris and Brussels.

Make or Break





two women stand in front of a shopfront that says



Make or Break, Unveilings, 2018. Shopfront and survey collection documentation, Mollison Street, Kyneton. Kyneton Contemporary Art Triennial, 2018. Photograph: Zan Wimberley/Courtesy the artist

Sydney-based artist duo Make or Break began with a relatively simple premise. During an exhibition, Connie Anthes and Rebecca Gallo used the gallery space as a studio, starting with nothing but a basic toolkit and making works only from materials donated by visitors. Taking turns to make or break their own and each other’s works, the relay challenged the idea of the artist working in inspired solitude and explored a sustainable method of exhibition-making.

Since then, their projects have included Women of Kyneton, where the women of this Victorian town were invited to submit proposals for public monuments, and Institutional Waste #1, a project proposing a new approach to trickle-down economics and sustainability in which the artists take discarded materials from the nearby Art Gallery of New South Wales and use them to create works in other parts of the arts “ecosystem”.

Where to find their work: Institutional Waste #1 was recently on show at Artspace as part of the NSW Visual Arts Emerging Fellowship exhibition. Make or Break will also present work at the Next Wave festival, Melbourne, from 15 May – 30 May 2020.

Joan Ross





Joan Ross, Warra Warra Wai, 2019 (triptych)



Warra Warra Wai, 2019 (triptych) by Joan Ross. Photograph: Courtesy the Artist and Michael Reid Sydney + Berlin

For Joan Ross, the legacy of colonialism is writ large on the Australian landscape. Her now-signature aesthetic combines traditional landscape paintings such as those of colonial artist John Glover with the very contemporary shade of safety-vest fluoro yellow. In her video works, sprayed graffiti tags pepper the landscape and these 19th century protagonists shuffle around awkwardly, attempting ikebana arrangements with native flora until the whole scene collapses around them. Ross’s recent VR work, Did You Ask the River?, immerses the viewer in a chronologically disrupted tableau, using disarming humour to consider the destructive impact of colonialism.

Where to find her work: Ross has been commissioned to create a work that will feature on the hoarding of the AGNSW’s Sydney Modern construction project throughout 2020. Ross is represented by Michael Reid Gallery, Sydney, Berlin and Murrurundi, and Bett Gallery, Hobart.

Karla Dickens

Karla Dickens’ works are rich and rewarding, materially and conceptually. She often uses found and discarded materials, transforming them into objects of talismanic resonance and strength that speak to issues of identity politics, sexuality, Indigeneity and the environment.

A Wiradjuri woman based in Lismore, NSW, earlier this year Dickens was the subject of an extensive profile in the New York Times. In 2017, she was included in the major Australian biennial The National with works incorporating text and textiles: autobiographical reflections on the idea of home, and canvas straitjackets decorated with evocative items like plastic combs and cows’ teeth.

Where to find her work: In 2020 Dickens’ work will be included in the Adelaide Biennale of Australian Art (29 February – 8 June), the Biennale of Sydney (14 March – 8 June), and her exhibition My Mother’s Keeper, the result of a collaborative project between Dickens and author Bruce Pascoe, will take place at Linden New Art, Melbourne from 22 February – 17 May. Dickens is represented by Andrew Baker Art Dealer, Brisbane.

This series is supported by the National Gallery of Victoria. NGV’s Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines is currently showing in Melbourne until 11 April 2020

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